When I saw this come across my inbox a bit ago, I first thought this was a late-night prank being played on me. But as it turns out, it’s true: late this evening Google confirmed that they’re working on their own operating system for netbooks, tentatively titled Chrome OS.

Rather than rattle off the entire contents of their announcement, let’s hit the high points. Google's Chrome OS is an OS designed to do one thing and one thing only: run Google Chrome. It will be open source, it will run on ARM and x86, it’s Linux based, and it’s not going to launch until the second half of 2010. Taking a page out of Apple’s book, Google is announcing it now as a way to avoid another party spilling the beans before Google is ready.

The single most important thing to take from this announcement right now is just what Chrome OS will do. It won’t run an email client, it won’t run an office suite, and it won’t run games – it will only run Google Chrome. It’s Linux stripped to the bone, left with just enough to run Chrome, and nothing more.

Given this kind of a design, it should come as little surprise then that Chrome itself will be the platform through which additional applications will run. Google has been pushing the web application idea for years – indeed Chrome exists to further drive that goal – but previously this has always required accessing said web applications through a web browser running on a full-fledged OS. If nothing else it is somewhat redundant, not to mention the existence and use of native applications goes against Google’s grand unified vision for everything to be a web application.

Because Chrome will be available on Linux, Windows, and Mac OS X, developers will be able to create web applications targeting Chrome, and have it run on computers running any of the above operating systems, along with netbooks running Chrome OS. Along these lines, Google’s own web application suite finally left beta this week, where it’s entirely possible that this was intentional to coincide with the announcement of Chrome OS. Regardless, clearly Google’s application suite is going to be the center point of Chrome OS in order to flesh out the capabilities of Chrome OS-equipped netbooks to what’s expected of a modern computer.

The early announcement leaves plenty of time for more details to be refined and released, but this does raise a few core issues. First and foremost, will developers go with it? One of the most recent parallels to this is the original iPhone launch, where Apple pushed something very similar as the official way for developers to create applications for the iPhone, through creating web applications for Safari. It failed miserably, and a year later a real SDK was released for developers to create native applications. Chrome is better equipped than circa-2007 Safari for these matters (it has local storage capabilities, among other things) but the point still stands. Developers would be limited to AJAXy technologies, with no Adobe Flash to back them up. For the most part, developers would be looking at abilities below what Flash and Java are capable of, so not everyone would necessarily be happy about working with a limited toolkit.

The second issue is how consumers will respond. Chrome has been a tempered success as a browser, it’s bigger impact being to drive everyone else to improve their JavaScript performance. Just being Chrome won’t be enough for Chrome OS to succeed. Meanwhile Google’s web applications have been a smash hit – Gmail is the new standard for webmail interfaces, and other services like Google Docs have been picking up in usage. Google would be relying on their web applications to move consumers (and OEMs) to Chrome OS. But let’s also cut to the chase – this is the computer terminal/thin-client reborn, and history is littered with the carcasses of terminals and terminal-like computers that have died to full-fledged computers when consumers/users rejected going back to terminals. A complete thin-client system may be a gutsy move in modern times, but it's still a significant risk that is not in any way guaranteed to win over users.

And last but not least, we have Microsoft. The web browser replacing the OS has been Microsoft’s worst nightmare for well over a decade now. Much of their late-90’s anti-trust trial focused on how they attempted to drive Netscape out of business for fear of this exact situation arising. Microsoft won’t sit by idle, they will undoubtedly make a big move against Chrome OS, and they will try to not get dragged back in to court in the process. Whether that means just more cheap copies of Windows for netbooks or something more remains to be seen.

Quickly, it should also be noted that this is a separate effort from Google’s existing OS, Android. Android is similar in that it’s a Linux-based OS, but Android is targeted towards phones (even if it can be run on a netbook) and can run additional applications through Java. Chrome OS would be for more powerful devices, and as announced would not be able to run any applications other than AJAXy web applications through Chrome. Along these lines, it should be noted that Chrome OS is going to use a brand new windowing system. It's a bit of a generic statement, but we suspect that Google is going to keep the Linux standard of the X11 windowing system, but write their own window manager and GUI framework. If that is the case, then we won’t be seeing the usual suspects of KDE(Qt) or GNOME(GTK) here. This would also mean that even if Chrome OS could be manipulated in to running other programs, it would not have the ability to run the vast majority of Linux GUI applications without significant modification, as most applications use one of those two frameworks.

As always, we’ll have more on Chrome OS as it develops.



View All Comments

  • yyrkoon - Friday, July 10, 2009 - link

    "2) Thanks for that, I had two thoughts run together on that one. Even though Chrome for Linux uses GTK+, both Qt and GTK+ are fairly hefty frameworks. Google can easily write a much smaller framework and desktop environment that will better fit the lightweight approach they're going for. GTK+ and Qt would be overkill for what Google wants to do - they don't need most of the functions, and they definitely don't need the extra resource usage that brings."

    Why reinvent the wheel when something already exists? Sure, Google can do many a useful thing, but what about *programming* them self into a corner ? What you propose would not be very open ended, and could potentially lead to problematic code. Yes, any one could do the same, including the DEV teams for the above "frameworks".

    I know very little about Qt, and GTK+, however I am sure there could be, or possibly already is a light framework. Just like the mobile .NET framework . . . Anything is possible, but one thing I do know for sure is that developers would be more likely to embrace a well known/established library than to embrace a new one, that has no proven track record, and offers very little aside from communicating/interacting with a proprietary web browser.

    To everyone else:

    The one immediate positive thing that I can think about this is that it is OSS, and people may want to toy around with the code, and possibly turn it into something else. Perhaps even learn a thing or two. Or even teach the people at Google something ( which is probably why Google software is OSS to begin with ).

    However, I myself do use Chrome/gmail. Aside from that I not unlike many others would not want Google to have their hands in my business. I think web based mail is a great idea; for many reasons. On the flip side, Google could use this information for their own benefit, or just close shop and leave everyone out in the cold. This is why I believe it is a much better idea for people who need redundant copies of their own files, whatever they may be; that they should learn how, spend the money, and do it for themselves. If they do not care to learn how, pay someone else to do it for them. Someone who has no access to your data when they are finished.

    What happens when you do not have internet ? Or when you need to do a serious edit of an image, or video file ? Do you have broadband, and if so would you trust just any Joe with your data whether you profit from it or not ?

    Seeing both good and bad from this, I could go on all day. Unfortunately for Google, it is more bad than good.
  • KidneyBean - Wednesday, July 08, 2009 - link

    Google has more leverage than Canonical.

    Maybe Google will update Google Video and Youtube to HTML 5 for the release of Google Chrome OS. I think that would make it tolerable for many people not to have Flash. And things will only get better as time goes on.
  • ianken - Thursday, July 09, 2009 - link

    The problem with HTML 5 is the pissing contest over codecs. Opera wants OGG, everyone else wants H.264. The spec guys threw in the towel.

    Will these netbooks do either well? Not without GPU acceleration. ChromeOS have it? What API will they emply to support it?

    This'll be like the "magic gate" option on Asus mainboards. The thing yhou use to go online when your real OS bites the dust.
  • bobjones32 - Wednesday, July 08, 2009 - link

    With hundreds of millions of people using iPods and iPhones, among other devices, I can't see this taking off. With no support for native applications, it means no support for iTunes (or similar apps), which means no support for syncing their data.

    The general consumer doesn't want to mess around with multiple computers just so they can do what they want to do on each of them. They'll recognize that Chrome OS doesn't do what they want it to do, and opt for a netbook running XP or Windows 7 instead.
  • medi01 - Monday, July 13, 2009 - link

    Hundreds of milions?

    "According to this live blog of the Apple Quarterly conference call the sum of iPhone plus Touch iPods is now about 37 million units."

    And coupling with iTunes for me personally is a reason NOT to buy.
  • SkullOne - Wednesday, July 08, 2009 - link

    If everything is a web application what happens when you can't access the Internet? ;) Reply
  • captainBOB - Wednesday, July 08, 2009 - link

    Its still a long time until we see Chrome OS, its still possible that Google will change the whole idea and go to a full OS with just the basics, file browser, Chrome, text editor, etc. Reply
  • psonice - Wednesday, July 08, 2009 - link

    There's no way this will be widely taken up, although I expect it'll get massive publicity as it has the word "google" in it and it'll be seen as a challenger to windows.

    It's great that it'll boot in seconds and run super fast, but there's a serious flaw in the plan. It'll only run web-based apps. You know, the apps that are like your normal desktop ones, except much less powerful, and much slower. And it'll be running them on a netbook, with a weak CPU, so it'll be even slower.

    A netbook with windows or linux will run exactly the same apps at pretty much exactly the same speed, with the only disadvantage being longer boot times. Unless you use standby. The windows/linux machine will be able to run those fast and powerful native apps too. And the linux one at least will cost the same. And won't tie you in to google mail/docs/search/everything.

    That said, it will be great for computers that ONLY need web access. Then you don't lose anything, and you gain speed + security. Small market unfortunately.
  • Mills - Wednesday, July 08, 2009 - link

    Agreed, I think the main problem is it will not run Outlook, which tends to be critical in the business sector.

    Maybe you'll get a few students on a budget buying this if the price is low enough, but otherwise I don't see this gaining any traction.

  • SkullOne - Wednesday, July 08, 2009 - link

    I think this will be a very small niche market for start up companies who need things like e-mail on the cheap in the beginning. If the company takes off you'll see them move to Windows, MS Exchange, Office and Blackberries.

    Plus the world has already shown what they want on netbooks and that's Windows. Ubuntu captured what? Less then 5% of the netbook market?

    The Average Joe doesn't want Linux in any way, shape or form.


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